Local reaction is pouring in after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, a Black man who died after Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes during an arrest on May 25, 2020.
Floyd’s death sparked protests throughout the world and launched discussions around systemic racism and policing of racialized communities.
Here in Toronto, numerous anti-racism protests were held in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, as marginalized communities called for meaningful change that would see an end to discrimination.
“To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised with the verdict,” said Paul Erskine, a criminal defence lawyer practicing in the GTA.
“I think there’s a huge history in the United States for Black Americans, African Americans and that is by default transferred over to Black Canadians in terms of a distrust of the judicial system.”
Locally, several incidents have sparked protests and calls for change.
Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black woman, fell to her death from a balcony after police were called to her apartment on May 27 — just two days after Floyd was killed.
Her death sparked calls for reform in how mental health calls are treated in the city.
Korchinski-Paquet’s family has said they wanted her to be taken to a mental health facility, while officers said they were responding to a call about a possible assault.
Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), didn’t lay charges against officers in that incident.
SIU Director Joseph Martino said the officers tried to de-escalate the situation and “though their efforts were unsuccessful,” none of them broke the law.
Martino said there was no evidence of police wrongdoing or “overt” racism in the incident itself, but noted race may have been a factor in the events leading up to the death of Korchinski-Paquet; the director said that examining systemic issues in policing is not his purview.
In August, two reports by Ontario’s human rights commission found that Black people in Toronto are “disproportionately” arrested, charged and subjected to use of force by the city’s police force.
Other cases date back years, including the 2015 death of Andrew Loku, a Black father of five who was killed by police while holding a hammer in a Toronto apartment building.
“Our judicial systems are somewhat similar and the themes and the feelings of discrimination and systemic racism that people of colour feel in this country are the same,” Erskine said.
Both the Toronto Police Service and Peel Regional Police released statements following Tuesday’s verdict.
“While this verdict may be one more step in the process for the family and friends of George Floyd, we know there will be long-standing impacts on Black communities as a whole and not just on those with lived experiences of discrimination in the justice system or by police,” Toronto police said.
“We acknowledge the hurt, anger, frustration and fear that many may still be feeling at this time. As a service, we have been listening, learning, and changing over the past year and it is our desire to be more responsive to the communities we serve, including our Black residents.
“This is a journey we will continue to take, in partnership with our Black communities as we stand with them on this day and in the future.”
Peel police said they acknowledge the impact that Floyd’s death had on local communities.
“We acknowledge this and are continuing to lead meaningful work towards eliminating systemic discrimination and anti-Black racism — locally, provincially and nationally,” the statement read.
“It will be based on listening, open communication and collaboration.”
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said he hopes the verdict, plus the Biden administration’s tone when it comes to policing reform, will lead to change in America and beyond.
“We are likely to see action in the United States to address to the extent possible, issues of racial bias and police use of force more generally in America, and my hope is in other jurisdictions, including Canada as well,” Bempah said.
“I do think the tone reaches Canada. We look south of the border a lot obviously. We’re having these discussions here in Canada. We’re talking about this trial, but we’re talking about this trial in the context as well of our own discussions around policing, around defunding and de-tasking the police.
“Around police use of force and other forms of racial bias in policing, and so I think that this decision sends a signal to the public, it sends a signal to politicians, it sends a signal to police officers and police leaders that racial bias isn’t and should not be acceptable.”
— With files from Hannah Jackson, Emerald Bensadoun, and The Canadian Press